We commemorate 146 years since the birth of one of the most interesting and controversial Mexican composers in our history, whose ideas had an immediate impact on the way we think about music.
On January 28th, 146 years ago today, Julián Carrillo was born in San Luis Potosí, a Mexican composer, conductor, theorist and inventor. He died on September 9,th 1965 at his home in San Angel, Mexico City, a place I visited continuously between 2002 and 2009, while writing a thesis about his complete catalog, which includes a little more than 170 works and about 20 books and pamphlets. His name is certainly known by an international guild, as well as the fact that he is the author of Sonido 13, a theory and system of musical composition based on the use of smaller tone fractions to the conventional half-tone. Coincidence or not, about 13% of his musical works have been performed to this day. Most of his work and ideas remain in the shadows. 13 of his ideas, practically unknown until now:
1.- In 1900, at the age of 25, he attended the International Music Congress in Paris presided by Debussy, where the young composer proposed a nomenclature for musical notes. It was based on the Anglo-Saxon system, but he perfected it. For example, the notes “Mi” and “La”, which are represented by the vowels “E” and “A”, respectively, should be called “K” and “P”. Thus, by enunciating these sounds with fricative consonants, the verbal exercise of solfeggio was more agile, knowing that, in music, fractions of a second are of utmost importance. Likewise, the proposal avoided diphthongs that arise from cases such as “Eis” (E sharp), which for Carrillo should result in the word “Kis”. Up to this point, the composer’s thinking remains tonal.
2.- In 1922 he composed his emblematic Preludio a Colón, the first concert work to use sixteenths of a tone. It highlights the use of the female voice, articulating small portions of tone, as well as the harp, which, with 96 strings, covers the range of an octave. The need to use numbers to refer to the musical notes is born here. The interpreter must then read the strings to be plucked between the number 0 and 95.
3.- In 1925 he offered a concert with microtonal music in accordance with his newborn theory of Sound 13. Classical instruments adapted or constructed for the occasion constituted a unique ensemble. Guitar, cello, violin, flute, clarinet, vina, harp-zither, plus voice. Not to mention the “metamorphosed” pianos, which years later, displayed side by side, offered a journey from full tones, half tones, thirds, fourths and fifths, up to sixteenths.
4.- He proposed in writing the formation of an orchestra composed of 512 musicians, and new instruments, such as super-violins, smaller and sharper violins than the traditional instrument; or the sub-contrabass, a larger double bass than the usual one. But also by string and breath instruments that “fill” the supposed acoustic gaps between instrumental sections, such as that between violas and cellos, for example.
5.- Instead of the conventional four strings of the cello, he suggested using only three, and tuning them by octaves. In the case of the double bass, he suggested tuning it by fifths.
6.- In 1941 he published the Rational Solfeggio Method, a pedagogical disquisition aimed at the general population, where sounds are represented by numbers and which assumed that anyone could learn to read music immediately, appealing to logical thinking. “C” will be the number zero, “C sharp” the number 1, and so forth, in ascending succession. In this way, there is only one way to name each sound avoiding ambiguities. The first example of the method is the Mexican national anthem. “Do, mi, sol… sol, la, si, do” result in “0, 4, 7… 7, 9, 11, 0”. Between 2010 and 2012, I had the opportunity to apply such method when teaching a choir class at the “Centro de Investigación y Estudios de la Música” (CIEM) in Mexico City. I consider that the pedagogical fruit, as the author affirmed, was immediate.
7.- In 1947, Carrillo conducted an experiment in New York, in which he demonstrated that the second harmonic of the natural scale of sounds does not correspond to the right octave, since it is a little calante(low). This contradicted the accepted principle since Pythagoras.
8.- In 1948 he considered in his Synthetic Treatise on Counterpoint, speculations for improbable cases with more than 20 voices and an infinite number of them.
9.- He described the specific instrumentation of each of the different military bands in Europe, the United States and Mexico.
10.- In 1949 he published his Laws of Musical Metamorphosis (written in 1927) as a guide for composition. In doing so, he anticipated composers such as Bruno Maderna and Franco Donatoni, among others.
11.- In 1957 he explored the combining potential in musical scales and chords, anticipating classic works by theorists such as Allen Forte.
12.- In the same year, he published his General System of Musical Writing. Stokowski was perhaps, besides Carrillo, the only conductor to perform any work in this system.
13.- He made some considerations about the profession of conducting an orchestra. He started from the figure of Richard Wagner, author of one of the pioneering texts on the subject.
Today, almost a century after the creation of the first sixteenth-tone composition, it is an opportunity to review the work of a Mexican who in his lifetime received awards such as the nomination for the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1950; the Legion of Honor of the French Government and the Grand Cross of Merit of the German Government, both in 1956; as well as the Medal of Civic Merit in 1964.